For many folks in Northern Nevada, BJ’s has long put the b (or the B, if you like) in barbecue.
Although newer barbecue places, both chain and independent, have arrived (and departed), BJ’s Barbecue endures, its smoke flavoring brisket and ribs through the decades, its business evolving from storefront barbecue (mainly take-out) to stand-alone restaurant and catering outfit on Victorian Avenue in Sparks.
BJ’S NEVADA BARBECUE COMPANY
Address: 80 Victorian Ave., Sparks
On the web:www.bjsbbq.com
This year, BJ’s marks 30 years in the business of barbecue; the Rathmann family has owned the local icon for 25 of those years, leading BJ’s to seven placings in the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off, including first place in 1998 and second place in 2006.
The other day, with preparations for the Nugget cook-off in full St. Louis-style swing, Food & Drink sat down with Rathmanns to chat about the early days and the beauty of DIY and why shrimp and grits are the new spare ribs.
It’s late afternoon, traditionally quiet-time for a restaurant between lunch and dinner, but BJ’s is still busy, customers filling the main counter and the allée of booths beyond for hot link sandwiches and barbecue chicken and melts stuffed with corned beef caressed by smoke.
The crowd, one that also gathers for breakfast Benedicts and for rib-eye and eggs at brunch, could never have been accommodated at the old BJ’s, which occupied two different shop spaces in the same center on North McCarran Boulevard at Prater Way, about a mile from the current location.
“We could pretty much only do barbecue and side dishes there. We didn’t have the equipment for anything else,” said Roberta Rathmann, the family matriarch. She owns and runs the restaurant with husband Peter and son Jay. Daughter Kelly is retired from the family ‘cue.
A man named Al Norman founded BJ’s (full name: BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Company) in 1986. The Rathmanns, who had been restaurateurs in upstate New York, moved to Northern Nevada in 1989. Peter Rathmann became a BJ’s regular.
“I used to go there once a week,” he said. “It was my cholesterol fix.”
Rathmann saw a newspaper ad: BJ’s was for sale. He discussed the purchase with Norman. In August 1991, the Rathmanns became BJ’s new owners.
More, more, more
It’s 2010, the deeps of the recession. BJ’s Barbecue has been on North McCarran Boulevard for 20 years. Recently, the Rathmanns have headed a bit south and a bit west with their purchase of a former Ihop on Victorian Avenue.
The capacious new restaurant, to be called Hog Wild Café, will allow the family to significantly expand the menu, to serve more dishes to more customers more often while also still operating BJ’s Barbecue.
But first, there’s work to be done. Much, much work.
“It was filthy,” Roberta Rathmann began. “It was nasty,” Peter Rathmann continued. “It was tan and blue and brown. It hadn’t been updated in 20 years. I gutted it,” Jay Rathmann finished.
Over the next 18 months, Jay Rathmann and two friends pulled down walls, tore up floors, hauled out kitchen and environmental equipment. What remained? Mainly the brawny trusses overhead and the original built-in counter.
A new roof went on — “when it rained when it was an Ihop, the ladies who worked here had to put out buckets,” Peter Rathmann said. Cedar fencing went in to partition dining areas. A knotty pine bar inlaid with silver leaf took pride of place in the back.
Pressed tin ceilings, corrugated panels, window frames from a barn in Utah, great-grandmother’s checkerboard and wrought iron railings fashioned by Jay Rathmann completed the stylishly rustic look.
“We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars doing our own work,” he said
Hog Wild Café flourished for a year. In spring 2012, the Rathmanns merged BJ’s Barbecue with Hog Wild, and the café took the BJ’s name, with the original red BJ’s sign installed in the smoker room.
Looking back, the Rathmanns acknowledged the risk of expanding during a recession. But the old BJ’s, they said, limited by space and a high monthly rent, could not have sustained them.
As Peter Rathmann put it: “We almost had to get real jobs.”
When the Rathmann family bought BJ’s from Al Norman, his recipes inspired by Louisiana barbecue — lots of pig, lots of hot sauce, garlic and onion in the seasoning — came along with the purchase.
Today, while a few of Norman’s dishes survive, the kitchen compendium under Jay Rathmann has grown to more than 300 recipes. And though 70 percent of BJ’s business is still barbecue, the restaurant has moved beyond allegiance to one school of low and slow.
Jay Rathmann’s credo: “We’re going to make it from scratch.” Sauces, rubs, breading, gravies? They’re all proprietary. The kitchen grinds its own meat for burgers and sausages. Brisket takes a briny bath in house for corned beef.
Scratch biscuits emerge from the oven daily — “butter and lard every morning,” Rathmann said. Bacon is sliced nice and fat.
Though some new dishes haven’t worked — for one, “we couldn’t get anybody to bite a po’ boy,” Rathmann said — many more have taken.
Like haddock fish fries, a specialty of the family’s home region of New York State (and a change from traditional fried catfish of Southern barbecue joints). Or kick ass fries, a heaping lollapalooza of french fries, pulled pork, sour cream, green onions and a smother of house barbecue sauce.
And then there’s shrimp with cheddar grits. Come again? Grits? At a barbecue restaurant in the West?
“Yup,” Rathmann said. “With the cheddar, they have more flavor than regular grits. We do a TON of them.”
Will the people choose?
The Rathmanns have grown up in the barbecue business along with the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off. For the competition, BJ’s serves St. Louis-cut ribs, which are pork spare ribs in which the sternum, cartilage and rib tips have been removed to form a nearly rectangular rack.
“It’s so much easier to cut them,” Peter Rathmann said. “We typically do 10,000 pounds for the run of the ribs. After all these years, we have it dialed in.”
As noted before, BJ’s has placed seven times in the Nugget Rib Cook-off, including an overall win and best sauce. But the people’s choice “has eluded us,” Rathmann said. “We’d really like to win people’s choice.”
THE BEST IN THE WEST NUGGET RIB COOK-OFF
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 31 through Sept. 4; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 5
Where: Victorian Avenue outside the Nugget Casino Resort, 1100 Nugget Ave., Sparks
■ 23 professional cookers competing for $14,500 purse;
■ Sanctioned rib eating championship (6 p.m. Aug. 31 main stage);
■ Presidential piglet race (11 a.m. Sept. 1 main stage);
● Live music; and
● Children’s area.